District One in 2018: A Spy Goes to Harford County to Meet Barry Glassman

This Election 2018 profile is the third of a six-part series on the intricate makeup and character of the 1st Congressional District of Maryland. Each month, the Spy will be interviewing different 1st District residents from the Western Shore to the Lower Shore, both Democrats and Republicans, to discuss their unique sub-region of one of the largest congressional districts in the country, and the issues and political climate of those communities.

When Barry Glassman was attending Washington College in the early 1980s, he mirrored a world that ranged from the unbridled optimism of Ronald Reagan on one end and the cultural acceptance of TV’s right wing teen idol, Alex P. Keaton, on the other. Not burdened with memories of Watergate or the violence of the 1960s, Glassman, and his contemporaries, eagerly welcomed the Reagan era’s full throttle patriotism and America’s new, and much more hip, form of political conservatism.

From those early beginnings in Chestertown, where he sought his first political office as the president of WC’s Student Government Association, Glassman made politics a career choice that has taken him to become a Maryland state delegate, senator, and now the County Executive of Harford County.

A few weeks ago, the Spy drove over to Bel Air to talk the County Executive Glassman about his native Harford County, its role in the 1st District, as well as the increasingly polarized nature of national politics and what it means to be a Reagan Republican in the era of Donald Trump.

This video is approximately seven minutes in length. 

When Things Go Wrong: A Spy Chat with Easton Utilities Crisis Point Person Jim Crowley

As the Mid-Shore finds itself once again in the hurricane season, there is a relatively consistent feeling among Easton Utilities customers that the government-owned distributors of power (gas and electric), cable and internet services is exceptionally well equipped to handle whatever weather crisis comes its way. That’s no doubt due to the utility company’s well-earned reputation for customer service and safety.

But the Spy was curious, as we often are, about who were the actual people that would be leading the Talbot County’s recovery effort and we found one the other day.

If and when things go wrong around here, one of the critical point people will be Jim Crowley, the gas and safety manager for Easton Utilities. With a highly technical background of safety and crisis management, starting with his degree from the Mass Maritime Academy, Jim will be an essential part of the county’s SWAT team of agencies to get the greater Easton area back on its feet.

The Spy caught up with Jim outside of EU’s headquarters off Harrison Street last week to talk about the company plans for the “what ifs” that come with regional crisis management.

This video is approximately four minutes in length. For more information about Easton Utilities and what one can do to prepare for servere weather please go here

Washington Post: Seafood Company Diluted Chesapeake Blue Crab Meat with Imported Crab

Based on a tipster telling authorities that a Virginia seafood supplier was selling premium Chesapeake blue crab meat cut with cheaper foreign crab, federal agents fanned out to markets across Virginia, Delaware and North Carolina, scooping up crab meat from Casey’s Seafood and sending it out for the type of DNA analysis more common in rape and murder cases.

The results would reveal the tip of what authorities say is a massive fraud worth millions of dollars, one so large it has shaken the food industry and raised questions about just how much of the iconic food labeled as local comes from the Chesapeake Bay.

Please read the full article here

Supporters Rally to save Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge from Closing

Photo by Dave Harp

A national wildlife refuge that attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year to the Chesapeake Bay may be forced to close to the public soon.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering shuttering the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge because it lacks the funding to hire a new refuge manager, said Marcia Pradines, project leader at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a branch of the service that oversees the Chesapeake region’s national refuges.

“If the position isn’t filled, that’s a possibility,” Pradines said, “It’s not something we want to happen. In the end, it’s a budget reality.”

The refuge consists of a 2,200-acre island lying on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where the Chester River meets the Chesapeake. About 70,000 people visit each year to catch glimpses of tundra swans and more than 200 other bird species, to hunt deer and turkeys, and to hike among the island’s pine trees and saltwater marsh, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“People just like to drive down there sometimes,” said Melissa Baile, president of the Friends of Eastern Neck, a support group for the refuge. “You just feel the peacefulness. It’s just easy to get away when you go down there.”

The manager position has been empty since last September, when Cindy Beemiller left for a refuge on Long Island, NY. The financially strapped Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have the funding to fill the position, Pradines said. Beemiller was one of two paid employees assigned to the property; the other, a maintenance worker, is the only one who remains.

If Congress doesn’t appropriate significantly more money for the refuge system for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Eastern Neck may have to close to the public, she said, adding that it’s unclear when Fish & Wildlife will make that call.

The extent of the shutdown would depend on funding availability, Pradines said. The county road that traverses the island would remain open as far as Bogles Wharf Road, at the end of which are a county-maintained boat ramp and two small piers. But the road leading further south on the island would be closed, barring access to the visitor center and to the five walking trails and two boardwalks. It’s also possible that trail maintenance and other activities would cease, Pradines added.

As the agency ponders its next step, employees from the Marshlands complex’s headquarters in Dorchester County have been sharing the refuge’s administrative work — and the four-hour roundtrip drive that accompanies it.

The all-volunteer Friends of Eastern Neck has stepped in to cover other chores. In addition to their longtime responsibility of managing the visitor center, members are helping to conduct special events and performing countless hours of repairs and upkeep across the island.

At times, the island is devoid of personnel support, save for a lone volunteer manning the front desk, said Phil Cicconi, vice president of the Friends group. Although refuge staff installed a panic button, many of the older, female volunteers feel unsafe.

Shutting down the refuge, he said, would cause it to fall into disrepair and potentially attract relic-hunters who operate “like ninjas in the night.” The island is a trove of Native American artifacts. Cicconi worries that thieves might strip anything of value from the visitor center building, a renovated 1930s-era hunting lodge.

The island was one of the first English settlements in Maryland. In 1650, Maj. Joseph Wickes received a grant for 800 acres of land and constructed a mansion that has since disappeared. Eastern Neck became Kent County’s seat; Wickes, its chief justice.

The Friends group’s latest task, Baile said, is writing letters and emails to elected officials and Fish and Wildlife staff, urging them to keep their beloved refuge open. They have lined up a growing list of allies in the fight, including the Kent County Commissioners, Patuxent Bird Club and Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The Friends group also has partnered with their counterparts at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to create a website to fan public support: friendsofblackwater.org/help-eastern-neck.html. “We’ve done everything we think we can do,” she said.

But it may not be enough. Eastern Neck is the latest refuge in a growing list that has faced cutbacks and potential closure because of a lack of federal investment, said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs with the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

Accounting for inflation and fixed costs, the nation’s network of more than 560 refuges receives nearly $100 million less funding today than in 2010, according to the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a coalition of wildlife, sporting and conservation groups. The funding crunch has led the Fish and Wildlife Service to leave 488 refuge jobs unfilled, a loss of one out of seven positions.

“It’s a nationwide system problem. What’s happening in Eastern Neck is happening all across the United States,” Sorenson-Groves said. “You can limp along for a few years, tightening your belt and no travel and, whenever somebody retires, you don’t fill the position. But at a point, you can’t do anymore.”

Across the country, many refuges over the past 15 years have been forced to shut down visitor centers or cut back on the number of days they’re open, she said. The popular J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, for example, was forced to close its visitor center two days a week after it lost two park rangers to budget cuts. In Rhode Island, the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge visitor center was closed for three consecutive winters. Supporters raised money to install solar panels, cutting costs enough to allow it to open for the winter of 2008-2009.

The Trump administration requested $473 million in funding for the refuge system in fiscal 2019, a 2.7 percent decrease from current spending. An Interior Department appropriations bill approved in July by the House of Representatives sets aside nearly $489 million, a rise of less than 1 percent. That slight increase, if passed in the Senate, would have little effect on the refuge system’s staffing and maintenance woes, Sorenson-Groves said.

“You have to understand that you can berate the administration as much as you want, but ultimately it comes down to the legislative branch — Congress — to appropriate the money,” she said.

Eastern Neck’s supporters look to Rep. Andy Harris, the Maryland Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, as their best hope for action. He is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and belongs to the controlling party.

But Harris said his hands are largely tied. “The Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a valuable resource in Maryland’s first district,” he said in a statement. “While an amendment earmarking funding specifically for Eastern Neck would violate congressional rules, I am actively investigating this issue and exploring solutions that will allow the refuge to continue providing services to Marylanders.”

For her part, Baile said she hopes to find a sympathetic ear when the refuge system’s Northeast district head, Scott Kahan, visits Eastern Neck during his annual field trip toward the end of August.

“People love this refuge. We have good visitation. It services not only our local community but also people from all over the country,” Baile said. “You’re willing to close down a whole refuge over $25,000 or $30,000? It’s a question of him prioritizing other things over us.”

By Jeremy Cox

Bay Journal staff writer Jeremy Cox is based in Salisbury, MD.

Life on the Disappearing Edge by Tom Horton

 “Hey there, thanks for making my property worth even less!” You get calls and emails like that when you make a movie that raises public awareness of climate change, rising sea levels and worsening erosion.
The collateral damage of such efforts is they don’t exactly boost housing values for those already living along the low-lying edges of the Chesapeake.
“High Tide in Dorchester,” the Bay Journal film I just finished with photographer Dave Harp and producer Sandy Cannon Brown, shows how Maryland’s fourth largest county by land area could shrink to 14th (of 23) by 2100 if we don’t get serious about mitigating climate change.

“Kathy Blake in Hoopersville, MD. (Photo by Dave Harp)

Kathy Blake of Hoopersville in lower Dorchester County, the latest “fan” who called, didn’t need our film to raise her awareness. She and her husband, John, have lost six cars to high tides in their yard in the last 15 years, not to mention several bicycles. “If it’s at ground level here, sooner or later it floats away,” she told me during an interview in her yard near the Honga River.

Kathy and John grew up in the Washington suburb of Bladensburg, which received ocean-going vessels coming up what is now the Anacostia River until around 1835. By 1898, a writer noted that only a canoe could still navigate to the “port” of Bladensburg, filled in by sediment from tree clearing and poor farming practices.
When I visited their current 1890s two-story home on Hoopersville Road, it was easy to see how they fell in love with the place in 1996. Across a breathtaking sweep of saltmarsh and Bay, I could see Solomons Island and Calvert Cliffs, highlighted by the morning sun on the Western Shore.
“It was so peaceful, so safe and quiet, a playground for our kids,” Kathy said. Only later would the Blakes learn that they had moved to a place where the tide carries greater implications than the mere ebb and flow of water in and out of the Bay every six and a quarter hours.
Her first memorable high-water experience seemed more of a nuisance than anything — a couple of inches of water across the road as she took the kids to the school bus. “This is nothing,” the bus driver told her, and all morning it kept coming, up the front steps, to the front door sill, into the living room. “Oh well, we bought the house,” she said.
Kathy has long been in the habit of moving their vehicles across the street to slightly higher ground when she knows high water is coming, but sometimes there’s no warning. Last February on a bitter cold morning, she came downstairs to find the house surrounded by glistening water. “There was six inches in the Toyota Highlander . . . a total loss.”
She hauled her five-year-old granddaughter to the bus in a canoe that day. The water didn’t make it into the house, “but it was so close I knew if a truck came by, the wave from it would swamp the living room.”
The “big tide” — the biggest in recorded history for many parts of the Chesapeake — came in 2003 with the remnants of Hurricane Isabel. The Blakes had five feet of water in their home and evacuated in a hurry. “I left without even a pair of clean underwear,” Kathy said.
Uninsured, they put more than $70,000 of their own money into restoring their home, this atop the nearly $30,000 they’d already put into the place.
“I stopped being emotionally attached here after Isabel, we lost so much,” Kathy said. Even now, treasured pictures are leaned up, not attached to the walls, “so I can throw ’em in a box quick if I have to get out.”
And Kathy does want out. She called me because our High Tide film mentioned the need for governments to consider buying out homes vulnerable to rising seas and erosion. Governments in other locations have been buying out properties for decades along floodplains of streams and rivers — it’s cheaper in the long run than setting people back up for future disasters after flooding.
They could move anywhere; Kathy’s a semi-retired grant writer and John’s a plumber working on the Western Shore, coming back on weekends. But they can’t afford to sell. A hunt club might pay a little for their six-and-a-half acres, much of it saltmarsh, “but nobody else in their right mind would buy here.”
Anna Sierra, director of emergency services for Dorchester County, said officials are looking into possible federal-state grants for a “demonstration buyout” that would include the Blakes’ home and another in the Neck District west of Cambridge. The latter home might be moved to a vacant lot in Cambridge and its land used for public water access. “But this is all very preliminary,” Sierra stressed.
The two properties are just the tip of the iceberg, not only for Dorchester County, but for all of the nation’s coastlines; seas are expected to rise up to six feet in the next century, simultaneously threatening and devaluing properties.
Another concern for Hoopersville: The long bridge and causeway connecting the tiny community to the mainland is showing serious damage from storms and needs around $16 million in repairs — several times what it cost to build it in 1980. Neither state nor county road budgets have money for that.
Kathy’s plan B? “Hit the Powerball [lottery],” she said. “Or . . . it’s horrible to think this, but we’re insured now for flooding. The rates just went from $1,600 to $2,000 annually. If another Isabel hit, I could just take the money and leave.”
She wouldn’t go far from tidewater, though. “I love the Bay,” she said. “I just don’t love sharing my house and cars with it.”
Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

 

Port Street Perspectives: The Neighborhood Service Center with Corey Pack

It seems only natural given all the zoning, governance, and commercial interests at stake with a future Easton Point, that there has been an extraordinary focus over the last year or so on that rare piece of Easton waterfront and how it will be used in the next decade or so. But as anyone one from the Easton Economic Development Corporation will tell you, the segment of Port Street between the Easton By-pass (Route 322) and West Street is just as complicated and filled with an equal number of opportunities as well.

For within that one-mile zone consists of a community that has existed long before Port Street lost its historic purpose of providing a transportation axis between the town’s waterfront and the merchants located downtown.  It has also become one of Easton’s most diverse neighborhoods.

And one institution that has been there for decades has been the Neighborhood Service Center, which exists to improve the quality of life both socially and economically for low-income residents in Talbot County. The spy had an opportunity to talk to the president of that service agency’s board, County Council member Corey Pack.  In our interview, we discuss both the current and future vision for Port Street and the unique opportunities and challenges it brings to its residents, and to Easton at large.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. The production was co-sponsored by the Easton Economic Development Corporation. For more information about their mission or on the Port Street project, please go here

Spy Poll Results: Chestertown Overwhelmingly Likes Idea of Nonstop Public Transportation to Easton

The results of a Spy poll on public transportation is in, and the conclusions might surprise a few people.

In short, Residents of Kent County overwhelmingly support some form of public transportation to downtown Easton, based on an hourly schedule, with an average cost around $15 per ticket, departing every hour, and would be willing to do so more often if offered special discounts by restaurants or performance venues.

Over 170 Spy readers responded to the Spy poll posted last week asking Chestertownians if they would use a non-stop shuttle service between downtown Chestertown and downtown Easton for either work or pleasure. A summary of the survey is shown below.

1.  Would you use an nonstop bus shuttle from Chestertown to Easton?

2.   What would be a fair round trip fee for such a trip?

3.  Ideally, what schedule would you prefer if a service was offered?

4.  Would your employer help you cover some these costs?

5.  If traveling for entertainment or dining, would you be more likely to use the service if there were special discounts rates offered by restaurants or performance venues?

Back home on their Range: Quail find Refuge on Restored Grassland by Tim Wheeler

Dan Small, field ecologist for Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society, coordinates the Natural Lands Project, which works with private landowners to re-create Eastern Shore grassland habitat. (Dave Harp)

It’s a little past dawn on a foggy spring morning, but already the field on Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore is wide awake. From the cover of tall grass and a few shrubs, a multilingual chorus of birds greets the new day with a cacophony of chirps, warbles and whistles, like a symphony tuning up before the concert.

Then, amid the familiar trills of red-winged blackbirds and other feathered regulars, comes a call rarely heard any more in these parts — bob-white! Down a lane across the field, the black-and-white striped head of a Northern bobwhite quail pokes out of some short grass.

Once commonly heard, if not seen, in brushy meadows and hedgerows, quail have become scarce in Maryland and elsewhere as farming practices have changed, eliminating much of the ground-dwelling birds’ habitat. This 228-acre prairie along the Chester River — part of sprawling Chino Farms in Queen Anne’s County — has become a refuge for quail since it was converted from cropland nearly 20 years ago.

“You really can’t go many places on the Shore and hear this many [quail],” said Daniel Small, an ecologist with Washington College, the private liberal arts college in Chestertown that uses the tract as a research station and outdoor classroom.

Bill Harvey, game bird section leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, agrees, calling the number of quail there “unbelievable.”

“It used to be that just about everywhere was quail habitat,” Harvey said. But in the interests of cultivating crops more efficiently, modern farming has removed the fencerows that once segmented the land into small fields, along with shrubbery and weeds along the edge of croplands — all of which provided shelter for grassland birds.

“As time has gone on,” Harvey added, “the acreage has shrunk to the point where a lot of [the habitat’s that’s left] is not connected in a way that quail can use it.”

But at the college’s Chester River Field Station, switchgrass and waist-high bunches of broomsedge bluestem wave in the gentle breeze, an uncommon sight in a rural landscape dominated by vast uninterrupted fields of corn and soybeans, the staples of Shore agriculture.

A quail takes flight from the grasslands at Washington College’s Chester River Field Research Station on Chino Farms. (Dave Harp)

Quail use the cover of the tall grass and occasional shrubs to forage on the ground for seeds, leaves and insects. During mating season in spring, they call to one another with their trademark whistle and a series of other sounds. In the winter, the birds huddle together for shelter in groups called coveys.

Small, who lives in a house on the tract, said it’s not clear just how many quail inhabit the grassland, which occupies just a sliver of the 5,000-acre Chino Farms — owned by Dr. Harry Sears, a retired physician who’s on the college’s governing board. But “calling counts” conducted on a portion of the tract have tallied about 35 male birds in that immediate area.

Though the grassland looks wild and even a tad unkempt to the untrained eye, it’s actually managed to stay that way. In a rotation intended to sustain the grasses but vary their height across the tract, blocks of land are periodically mowed, sprayed with herbicide and set ablaze with controlled burns. Otherwise, shrubs and eventually trees would take over. While that would be a natural succession, the aim in this case is to retain a haven for wildlife that thrive only in prairie-type landscapes.

Though quail — a once-popular game bird — may be the most charismatic denizen of the Chester River tract, they’re not the only avian species that have a stake in the success of the grassland restoration. In essence, according to Small, they’re an “umbrella” species for lots of other birds that need similar habitat, such as the grasshopper sparrow and field sparrow.

Like quail, a number of other grassland birds are in decline across Maryland, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. At one time, as many as 80 nesting grasshopper sparrow pairs were spotted on the Chester River tract, Small said, but their numbers have slowly dropped over the years. On that spring morning, he said, he hadn’t heard a single call.

For the past few years, the college, through its Center for Environment & Society, has been working to persuade other Shore landowners to follow suit and re-establish some of the grassland habitat that’s been lost over the decades, in hopes of reversing those declines.
In 2015, the school teamed up with Shore Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group, to launch the Natural Lands Project, a bid to make some of the region’s farmland more wildlife friendly while also enhancing water quality by establishing grassy runoff buffers and wetlands along streams and rivers.

With the help of a $700,000 grant from the state DNR, the project team has enlisted 27 landowners in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. By the end of the year, it hopes to have converted 375 acres into grasslands, as well as another 36 acres into wetlands. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has kicked in $499,000 to create another 275 acres of upland habitat and 27 acres of wetlands, extending farther south into Talbot County.

“It’s not going to be for everyone, and we’re not trying to twist landowners’ or farmers’ arms to do this,” Small explained. “They have to want to create that change on the property.” But if someone has marginal cropland they’re willing to convert, he said, they can be compensated for taking the land out of production by signing up for one of the federal farmland conservation programs, with the project’s grant funding to help make up any difference.

Small said the team is most interested in working with landowners willing to convert at least 40–50 acres at a time, otherwise the habitat isn’t large enough to be really helpful. “You can’t expect to make a change in quail populations by doing five or 10 acres at a time,” he said. The project further attempts to create habitat on adjoining or at least nearby tracts, to create a corridor where quail can spread. The birds do not migrate or fly long distances.

Small said hunters are among the most receptive audience for the project’s habitat restoration pitch. They’d like to see Maryland’s small quail population grow and become more sustainable for hunting. New Jersey has banned quail hunting except on private game reserves, but it’s still legal to shoot wild quail in Maryland — if you can find them.

Harvey, the DNR game bird leader, said that while quail hunting has been restricted on public lands, wildlife managers have been reluctant to do likewise on private property because they believe it would undercut efforts to preserve and restore habitat.

“Just like Chino Farms and Dr. Sears,” Harvey pointed out, “a lot of the people interested and willing to take land out of production and spend the money it takes to manage for quail [are] at least somewhat interested in hunting for quail.”

Rob Leigh said that he and his wife Linda are still waiting to hear that distinctive “bob-white!” call on the 35 acres of farmland in Betterton that they turned into grassland and wildflowers 2.5 years ago.

Leigh, a retired dentist, recalls hearing the birds all the time when he was growing up on the Shore, and it’s what prompted him to place a portion of their 114-acre farm in the Natural Lands Project. He believes it’s only a matter of time until the birds take up residence there, as quail have been sighted just a few miles away.

Leigh said he was a little nervous at first about converting the cropland, which they’d been renting to a neighboring farmer to grow corn and soybeans. But the farmer found other land not far away, and Leigh said the lost rental income is covered by federal and grant funds.

Even without any quail yet, he added, they’re enjoying the sights and sounds of other wildlife on the converted cropland. “We see an immense array of different birds, of a variety I’ve never seen before,” he said. “The swallows and bluebirds, they just swoop up and down, they’re so fun to watch.” The patch of wildflowers planted in the center of the grassland has proven to be an insect magnet — drawing butterflies and so many bees that Leigh said they generate an audible buzz that carries across the field.

“I feel like we planted a prairie almost, it’s very lovely,” he said, calling the field “a kaleidoscope of color” in spring, first awash in yellow blooms and then hues of purple. “My wife loves it. She thinks it’s the best thing going.”

Timothy B. Wheeler is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Facing a Finite Future, Smith Islanders put Their Faith in Jetties and God By Jeremy Cox

Only in a place like Smith Island would someone get choked up about a jetty, a man-made wall of stones that functions like a bulwark against waves and water currents.

Eddie Somers, a civic activist and native of the island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, delivered remarks at a recent press conference called by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to mark a milestone in the construction of two jetties off its western flank. He was close to finishing when he suddenly stopped, holding back tears — tears of joy.

“Those barrier islands were in danger of breaching in a couple places, and when that happens, you’re one hurricane away from losing your home,” he said when asked later about the moment. “So, for a lot of people, it’s emotional — not just me.”


Two men in a small boat motor toward the community of Ewell, on the north end of Smith Island. (Jeremy Cox)

On Smith Island, Maryland’s only inhabited island with no bridge connection to the mainland, residents prize self-reliance. But for more than two decades, Somers and his neighbors had been pushing for outside help to save their low-lying island properties from slipping away into the surrounding Bay.

Now, they’ve gotten it. Since 2015, federal, state and local sources have invested about $18.3 million in three separate projects on and around Smith Island, adding about two miles of reconstructed shoreline, several acres of newly planted salt marshes and hundreds of feet of jetties.

That money may buy a lot of jetty stones and sprigs of cordgrass, but all it can really buy is time, according to climate researchers and Army Corps officials.

As seas rise and erosion takes its toll — and the population shrinks — some homes have been abandoned on low-lying Smith Island, including this two-story house in the community of Rhodes Point. (Jeremy Cox)

Smith Island is an archipelago, with a population spread across three small communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. Since 1850, erosion and rising sea levels have put about one-third of the islands underwater. By 2100, the Bay is expected to rise by at least 3 more feet – bad news for a land that’s mostly less than 3 feet above current sea level.

Clad in fatigues, Col. Ed Chamberlayne, head of the Army Corps’ Baltimore District office, boarded the Maryland Department of Natural Resources research boat, Kerhin, after the press conference to tour the new jetties with an entourage of state and local officials. He described the $6.9 million project, which also includes dredging a boat channel and using the fill to restore about 5 acres of nearby wetlands, as a temporary fix.

“How long this will last is an obvious question,” Chamberlayne said. “As far as what this does to Smith Island long-term, this is not a cure-all.”

Col. Ed Chamberlayne, Baltimore district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, speaks with Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton on a ferry ride to Smith Island June 21 to view the completed jetties. (Jeremy Cox)

Nor are any of the other projects. So, with each inch of sea level rise and dollar spent fighting it, an old question gains more urgency: To what lengths should society go to defend Smith Island and other places believed to be highly vulnerable to climate change? Facing land losses of their own, coastal communities in Alaska and Louisiana are getting ready to relocate to new homes farther inland.

A similar debate hit Tangier Island, about 10 miles south of Smith Island in Virginia waters, after a 2015 Army Corps study declared that its residents may be among the first “climate refugees” in the continental United States. In the wake of a CNN report about the shrinking island last year, President Donald Trump, who has referred to global warming as a “hoax,” called its mayor to assure him he has nothing to worry about.

In a view shared by many on the boat, State Sen. Jim Mathias expressed confidence that the island would be around for a long while. “It’s man’s hand intervening,” said Mathias, a Democrat who represents the lower Eastern Shore. “We have the top engineers working for us. We’ll figure it out.”

When the final phase of the jetty project is completed this fall — channel dredging and marsh restoration remain — it will mark the end of a chapter in the community’s history that started with, as some residents interpreted it, its proposed destruction.

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy walloped the New Jersey coast and flooded lower Manhattan in New York City, and in Maryland caused extensive flooding in Crisfield and along the Bay shore in Somerset County. Smith Island suffered relatively little damage by comparison.

Still, state officials, conscious of the long-term threat to Smith posed by rising seas, set aside $2 million in federal relief money to buy out voluntary sellers. Plans called for homes or businesses acquired by the state to be torn down and future development to be banned on the properties.

“The people didn’t want to be bought out, and they were sort of insulted by it,” said Randy Laird, president of the Board of County Commissioners in Somerset County, which includes Smith island. “They felt like they (state officials) were trying to close down the island.”
The buyouts would have created a domino effect, Mathias said.

“Once it starts, it doesn’t stop,” he said. “It goes from one parcel to another parcel. And another family falls on hard times, and the state shows up with a check.”

Enter Smith Island United

The archipelago has lost nearly half its population since 2000. Among the fewer than 200 who remain, one-third are age 65 or older. Most young people leave after finishing high school for lack of jobs on the island. “We didn’t really have a voice in government,” Somers said.

To push back against the buyouts, residents formed a civic group and began hosting regular community meetings. Those talks turned into Smith Island United. Somers, a part-time resident and captain of a state icebreaker boat, was installed as its president.

Soon, the organization persuaded the state to drop its buyout offer in favor of a “visioning” study. The report, finalized in 2016, outlined several possible actions for reversing the downward course, ranging from creating a seafood industry apprenticeship program to providing more public restrooms for island visitors.

That same year, Maryland named Smith Island a “sustainable community,” giving the community access to a suite of revitalization initiatives from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and grant programs. The island received a $25,000 grant last year to fix store facades because of the program.

In the meantime, long-stalled plans to shore up Smith Island’s marshy coastline began to materialize. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built a $9 million “living shoreline” in the Glenn Martin National Wildlife Refuge, a marshy island that protects Smith’s north side from erosion. Then came a $4.5 million county project, completed in late 2017, that created another living shoreline on the island’s west side near Rhodes Point, the smallest of the island’s three communities and its most endangered spot.

The Army Corps complemented that work with the construction of two jetties earlier this year, one on either side of an inlet called Sheep Pen Gut. Workers are expected to return in the fall to dredge the channel, deepening it from 3 feet to 6 feet. That will restore vessel passage through the island, eliminating the circuitous, gas-wasting journey to the open Bay that some watermen have had to take since the inlet became too shallow.

Everett Landon caught a glimpse of the construction while standing on the second-floor balcony of a home still under construction. “It looks very good,” said Landon, a Rhodes Point native who last year took over as pastor of the island’s three churches. “With the erosion we’ve been facing, people have been wondering how long until it makes them move away.”

The Rhodes Point jetty project had been on the books at the Army Corps since the mid-1990s. Some residents had all but given up hope that it would ever get built. “You get a community that struggles a lot, and you get a project like this — it puts the wind in your sails. It just shows persistence,” Landon said.

He added that the help is especially welcome in Rhodes Point, where the 40 or so remaining residents live on an ever-shrinking strip of high ground. For his part, Landon measures that loss in the gradual disappearance of a beach once visible — high and dry — beyond the marsh that fringes Rhodes Point. “My grandmother told me that when she was younger, she could sit on the second floor of her home and all she could see was sand,” he said. “When I was growing up, it was just a narrow strip and then marsh. When my kids came along, it was just gone.”

Most Smith Island residents have incomes tied to the seafood industry, from the crabs they catch or pick or the oysters they dredge. Support for Trump was near-unanimous on the island in 2016, and most share his skepticism toward human-caused climate change. They concede that their island is vanishing, but they prefer to speak of it in terms of erosion instead of sea level rise.

Marianna Wehnes moved to Smith Island in 2011 to live with her boyfriend, and she quickly fell in love – with the island. After her relationship with the man ended, Wehnes moved back to the mainland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but soon returned. She missed the community’s tranquil way of life and knowing her neighbors. She now works in one of Ewell’s gift shops, where it is considered a busy day if eight customers walk through the door.

The new jetties and restored marsh will help keep the island above water for a while, Wehnes agreed. Beyond that, she added, Smith Island’s fate will be up to a higher power. “It’s been here 400 years, and it’s going to be here for 400 years. The only reason it won’t be is if the good Lord tells it to go.”

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer and a communications instructor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD, where he is based.

Colvin Wins Democratic Primary in First District Race

Jesse Colvin is on track to win over his five opponents in the Democratic Primary for the Congressional District 1. With 225 of 294 precincts reported, Colvin is leading the field with 38% of the vote count followed by Allison Galbraith at 27.8% and Michael Brown at 14.6%.

The Spy will have complete election totals for all local races on Wednesday morning.